Saturday, 9 January 2010

The acute charms of Berber women

It was with some pleasure that I discovered that I would be accompanied by two Berber women on the holiday I spent in Marrakesh over Christmas and the New Year.

It was also a bit of a surprise. I mean, I knew I was going with two women. However, one was my wife Danielle, who is technically French, and the other was my son Michael’s girlfriend, Lucía, who is technically Spanish. It turns out that they were honorary Berber women, accorded that status by the merchants of the Marrakesh Souks.

When I say ‘honorary’ I don’t mean that the shopkeepers bestowed the title as an unambiguous honour. They used it with wry rather than cordial admiration. They used it to recognise a talent for bargaining prices downwards, apparently a talent in which Berbers, and specifically their womenfolk, excel.

It really is a talent, incidentally. I bought just one thing in Morocco – a T-shirt that doesn’t really fit and for which I paid a price pretty similar to anything I would have been charged in England. Danielle and Lucía – and indeed Michael who got a great price on a handbag for Lucía – showed real Berber qualities.

Here’s how it works.

The process starts with the shopkeeper proposing a price double what he hopes to make. This is what I like to think of as the ‘try-out price’: after all, someone might say ‘yes’, and why not get it if you can?

Danielle asked for a price on two linen shirts.

‘500 dirham,’ we were told.

She responded with an excellent imitation of a good-humoured chuckle. ‘I’m sorry – that’s far more than we intend to pay.’

‘250,’ said the shopkeeper.

This is the ‘desired price’. A lot more than he would accept if pushed, but what he’d like to get in an ideal world.

Danielle shook her head. ‘Oh, no. Much too much.’ She thought for a while. ‘How much for three?’

‘For three? 350 dirham.’

Danielle sighed. ‘Still too much for us.’ She put down the shirts. ‘We’ll try somewhere else.’ We started to leave the shop, the shopkeeper bowing politely as we went. But, as Danielle reached the doorstep, ‘Wait,’ he called out, ‘how about 320?’

‘300,’ said Danielle.

‘Make it 310 and you can have the shirts.’

Danielle sighed as though she could hardly believe that she was agreeing to so excessive a demand and counted out the money.

Just to give a sense of perspective, 10 dirham is about 90 euro cents. But these bargaining sessions aren’t about money, or not mainly about money. There’s a principle at stake here, and above all a game to play.

Incidentally, 40% of the ‘try-out price’ is, in my experience, about the best we can get – it is what I think of as the ‘European price’. I suspect a real Berber woman could get lower. But it’s still a great victory in an ancient game when an honorary Berber woman gets that far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Friend of mine (in Mauritius) asks for the price of something, and is told 500 Rupees, and asks if he would go down to 490, whereupon the trader makes a grimace, and says that like everybdy else he was trying to make a living, there was no need to be sarcastic.